GOP under mounting pressure to strike virus deal quickly

Republican lawmakers faced with slipping poll numbers and economic indicators acknowledge they are under pressure to reach a quick deal with Democrats on a new coronavirus package.  

Armed with more leverage, Democrats will likely not agree to any deal unless it is closer to the $3.4 trillion bill the House passed in May. Republican officials don’t see any advantages to drawing the battle out.

GOP senators say there are several significant factors that weigh in favor of reaching a deal soon. They include the expiration of the $600-a-week federal enhancement to state unemployment benefits, the expiration of the federal moratorium on evictions, the recent wave of new coronavirus infections in Sun Belt and Midwestern states, the fast-approaching start of the school year, and a wave of potential small-business closures predicted for the weeks ahead.

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“It has to be timely,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHow a nice-guy South Dakota senator fell into a Trump storm Republicans threaten floor takeover if Democrats weaken filibuster  Democrats must close the perception gap MORE (R-Fla.) of the timeline for passing a measure.

“The goal is to get it done quickly,” he said, adding that “it takes time to deploy money for the testing” and noting that the last round of federal supplemental unemployment benefits are being sent this week.
“Everyone here should feel pressure because this is a rolling economic emergency we’re facing. Every day that goes by with headlines about how far apart we are injects negativity that has an economic consequence,” added Rubio, who chairs the Small Business Committee.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSinema scuttles hopes for filibuster reform Republicans threaten floor takeover if Democrats weaken filibuster  Biden's court picks face fierce GOP opposition MORE (N.C.), one of the chamber’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, said he wants a deal concluded soon so that constituents don’t see a break in enhanced unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.

“I think we want to get something fairly soon so we have continuity of UI benefits in particular,” he said.

It remains unclear if Congress can strike an agreement by the end of next week, when the Senate is scheduled to adjourn for its August recess.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySunday shows preview: Democrats' struggle for voting rights bill comes to a head Kyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy, and the politics of rage Romney says it 'would be nuts' for the RNC to block candidates from commission debates MORE (R-Utah) also warned Tuesday about the lapse of enhanced unemployment benefits.

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“I’d like to see us move on unemployment as soon as possible. It would be nice if we could get everything at the same time, but I really do not want to have people lose their supplemental unemployment benefit, whatever that number might be,” he said.

Some Republican lawmakers have floated the possibility of moving a short-term extension of the federal addition to state unemployment benefits, although at a lower number than the $600-a-week boost provided by the CARES Act, the initial virus bill that was signed into law earlier this year.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiClyburn says he's worried about losing House, 'losing this democracy' King family to march for voting rights in Arizona before MLK Day GOP's McCarthy has little incentive to work with Jan. 6 panel MORE (D-Calif.), however, on Monday dismissed that idea, telling reporters: “Forget it.”

Republican senators don’t want to undercut their negotiating position but privately acknowledge it’s in their interest to cut a deal with Democrats quickly.

“I do want to get something done. The challenges people are facing is now and it’s important that we do our efforts quickly,” said a GOP senator who requested anonymity to comment on the pressure on Republicans to clinch a deal in the next week or two.

The senator cited the expiring boost to unemployment benefits as a problem that needs to be solved as soon as possible.

“The [unemployment insurance] issue is one of the pieces of leverage that forces Congress to work more quickly,” the lawmaker said.

Republicans are well aware that President TrumpDonald TrumpClyburn says he's worried about losing House, 'losing this democracy' Sinema reignites 2024 primary chatter amid filibuster fight  Why not a Manchin-DeSantis ticket for 2024? MORE’s chances of winning reelection, and their chances of keeping the majority, will depend largely on public perceptions of the strength of the economy and how well the president has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s job approval rating is hovering around 40 percent in recent polls and the approval rating of his performance in handling the pandemic was 32 percent in a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

Weighed down by Trump’s weak numbers, GOP incumbents are trailing or in dead-heat races in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate MORE (R-Tenn.) noted Tuesday that the start of the new school year is fast approaching and that it will likely take the Department of Education and states about a month to fully implement federal funding to make classrooms and school schedules safer.

“The president and Senate Republicans have recommended $105 billion for back to school and back to college,” he said. “In the South, school is beginning right away and the whole purpose of this funding is to make sure the schools can open safely with as many children physically present as possible. So the sooner the better.”

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSinema reignites 2024 primary chatter amid filibuster fight  Biden's new calls to action matter, as does the one yet to come Trump to make election claims center stage in Arizona MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday called on negotiators to focus on core issues related to responding to the pandemic and to jettison provisions that are not really relevant and are likely to spark political controversy and slow down the talks.

The GOP leader told reporters that he opposes “nongermane” amendments such as the $1.75 billion in funding for a new FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, which the administration asked to be included in a joint White House-Senate Republican relief bill.

“I am opposed to nongermane amendments, whether it’s funding for the FBI building or, for example, in the House bill, whether it’s a tax cut for high-income earners in blue states,” McConnell said.

“When we get to the end of the process, I would hope all of the non-COVID-related measures are out, no matter what bill they were in at the start,” he added.

Democrats on Monday seized on the inclusion of money for refurbishing the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in the GOP opening proposal as an attempt by Trump to protect the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue from the possibility that a new luxury hotel might move into the spot currently occupied by the FBI.

The problem GOP lawmakers face is that Democrats will demand a high price for passing a bill that could be crucial to Trump’s chances of winning reelection and Senate GOP hopes of saving endangered incumbents.

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While Republicans want to cap the next relief bill at $1 trillion, Democrats are calling for $3.4 trillion in new stimulus, with $1 trillion set aside just for cash-strapped state and local governments. Conservatives in the Senate are adamantly against adding trillions more to the exploding deficit.

After receiving a briefing from Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinSuspect in Khashoggi murder arrested The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to tackle omicron risks with new travel rules Mnuchin and McConnell discuss debt limit during brief meeting MORE and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsTucker Carlson extends influence on GOP  Jan. 6 panel asks McCarthy to cooperate Clay Aiken running again for Congress because North Carolina representatives 'don't represent me' MORE during a Senate GOP lunch meeting, Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyHawley says he would have opposed resolution to honor Capitol workers on Jan. 6 Hawley introduces bill banning lawmakers from making stock trades in office Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two MORE (R-Mo.) told reporters that the cost of the relief bill is likely to swell significantly. 

“This is not going to be the bill. The chief of staff was just talking about [how] they’re going to negotiate with Pelosi,” he said, predicting the final version of the legislation will bear little resemblance to the joint proposal put together last week by White House and Senate GOP negotiators.

On Tuesday evening, Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseSinema scuttles hopes for filibuster reform Democrats outraged after Manchin opposes Biden spending bill Senate confirms Rahm Emanuel to be ambassador to Japan MORE (R-Neb.) ripped the Trump administration in a statement: “We have two big government Democrats — Secretary Mnuchin on behalf of the Trump administration and Speaker Pelosi on behalf of binge-spending politicians everywhere —  playing gross games with your kids’ money.”

Another significant obstacle to a quick deal is McConnell’s demand that new legislation include a five-year liability shield to protect businesses, schools, colleges, churches and other organizations from coronavirus-related litigation.

He reiterated his position Tuesday.

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“There is no chance, zero chance America can get back to normal without … liability protection and no bill will be put on the Senate floor that does not include it,” he said.

“Today we had sort of a message from the Senate side that seems to me that Sen. McConnell really doesn’t want to get an agreement made,” Pelosi said, referencing the GOP leader’s insistence on a liability shield.

“Leader McConnell said that his entire liability provision would have to be — without negotiation — part of any bill that’s going to pass. That is no way to negotiate,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerKyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy, and the politics of rage Joe Biden's disastrous 48 hours Biden's desperate pitch to keep minority voters MORE (N.Y.).